On the Path

Image courtesy of sritangphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of sritangphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Fourth and last Noble Truth is the most complex and important. In the suttas the Buddha gives many different understandings of the Path to nibbāna, but of those the one most associated with the Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path. This is the path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These are typically divided into three baskets: the first two (view and intention) being aspects of wisdom (paññā), the second three (speech, action, and livelihood) aspects of ethics (sīla), and the last three (effort, mindfulness, and concentration) aspects of meditation or concentration (samādhi).

When discussing the dhamma with laypeople, typically the Buddha would only discuss ethical conduct (sīla), since the understanding in his day was that those interested in attaining nibbāna would have “gone forth into homelessness”, that is become monastics. Anyone not a monastic was thereby assumed not to be interested in attaining nibbāna, at least not in this lifetime. Their aim was to gain a better rebirth through ethical behavior, as is still the case in traditional Buddhist communities.

In what follows I will try to elucidate a few of the hidden corners of these aspects of the Path, so as to present them in greater detail as regards the Buddha’s actual teachings in the Nikāyas. Some of what follows will be controversial from a contemporary, secular context, since much of it is intended for monastics. Nevertheless the claims deserve consideration, and I hope will at least prove worthwhile food for thought.

Right View

In the Pāli Canon right view is said to have two different aspects. In its mundane aspect, right view is simply the belief that actions have consequences. Or as the Buddha taught, and as is traditionally stated, it is the belief that wrong actions lead to painful results and even to hell in future lives, while right actions lead to pleasant results and even to heaven in future lives. I have already stated reasons for denying rebirth as well as reasons why we can indeed subtract what we don’t find useful in the dhamma, so I will not restate them here. Of course, this view of kamma as causally active does not conform to a contemporary understanding of the way the world works, and insofar as it depends upon rebirth, “mundane right view” is even worse off.

That said, the Buddha’s arguments supporting belief along the lines of “mundane right view” are strictly ethical and prudential: belief that actions have (good and bad) consequences will lead us to act ethically, and ethical action will lead to our benefit and to the benefit of others. That aspect of the Buddha’s argument is one we can accept without damage to a scientifically informed understanding of the world. Insofar as we accept some version of Secular Humanism we already accept that there are right and wrong ways to act, very roughly based on the benefit or harm we cause to others and ourselves.

Right view has another aspect, which may be termed “supramundane”: it is the aspect of right view that encompasses the Four Noble Truths themselves, the awareness of dukkha, its cause, its cessation, and the way to its cessation. In the Canon this aspect of right view is seen to be in a sense “beyond all views”.

As Paul Fuller (2005) has argued, that isn’t to say that one of right view has no views at all; that cannot be the case since right view encompasses the Four Noble Truths. It’s rather that right view is not a cognitive exercise in assenting to a proposition. In a sense that should be obvious, since many of us may assent to the propositions involved in the Noble Truths without thereby becoming enlightened. Right view, at least in its final stage, is the transformative awareness that leads to non-clinging to all things, including views themselves. Not to cling to a view is not to identify with it in any sense: not to think of it as “I, mine, myself”.

This is not the same as saying we should give up all beliefs. It is instead to say that we should not be swayed by the worldly winds of agreement and disagreement over views. Since views are not “I, mine, myself” they do not require emotional investment, nor should they elicit the protective impulse of defense against attack. They are simply another kind of mental perception, which may be accurate or inaccurate, skillful or unskillful.

Right Intention

In the Saṃyutta Nikāya (45.8) right intention is defined rather simply as: “intention of renunciation, intention of non-ill will, intention of harmlessness”. If we are to understand “right view” in the mundane sense of knowing right from wrong, then right intention is the resolve to put this knowledge into practice. As St. Augustine said under different circumstances,

Many years in my life had passed by — about twelve — since in my nineteenth year I had read Cicero’s Hortensius, and had been stirred to a zeal for wisdom. But although I came to despise earthly success, I put off giving time to the quest for wisdom. For ‘it is not to the discovery but the mere search for wisdom which should be preferred even to the discovery of treasures and to ruling over nations and to the physical delights available to me at a nod.’ But I was an unhappy young man, wretched as at the beginning of my adolescence when I prayed you for chastity and said: ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ (VIII.vii).

What in the West is known as “weakness of the will” is for Buddhism an example of wrong intention: putting off until later what can be practiced now. It’s something all too human, we’re all guilty of it but hardly like to admit our guilt, which is what makes Augustine’s confession so powerful. For Augustine as for the Buddha, intention involved chastity. “Renunciation” meant renunciation of sex, among other things, but particularly sex. While it is easy to dismiss chastity as simply another element of an outmoded or “religious” attitude, there is a live question as to whether one can rid oneself of attachment while pursuing sexual or sentimental goals. Certainly the Buddha believed that one could not. (Majjhima Nikāya 22.1-9). I am married, and it’s not something I have a good answer to. Nevertheless it is clear that sexuality has corrupted a good deal of the larger spiritual, and even the academic and business community. Greed for pleasant sensation leads to greed for conquest, which itself leads to harm and dukkha. In that sense the intention for harmlessness can itself lead to renunciation. One cannot have everything if one decides not to harm.

Progress on any path begins with intention, resolve, the decision to put the first foot forward, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to pick oneself up and get back on the road when one falters or gets lost.

Right Speech

This element of the Path is perhaps the hardest to practice but the one with the greatest potential benefit. I have argued before that the Buddha’s views on right speech are complex and subtle.

He said that one should engage in difficult or even unpleasant speech if one believed genuinely that it could make a difference, but only if the time was right. (MN 58.8, MN 103). Not only did he advocate giving tongue-lashings, he actually engaged in them. But they had to be on occasions where stern words could make a difference: being annoying or offensive for its own sake is of no benefit to anyone. Nor is speaking out at the wrong occasion, in public for instance when matters are best dealt with privately.

In advocating right speech the Buddha argued we were to abstain from “false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle chatter” (SN 45.8). False speech is easy enough to understand: nobody advocates lying as a general principle. Divisive speech is speech that divides one from another. Instead of looking to sow discord between people, we should look for ways to bring them together. It is startling how difficult this advice can be, but it can bring real benefits. Indeed, it can bring benefits simply to consider how often we speak divisively and how difficult it can be to break ourselves from that tendency.

Harsh speech in this context is speech that is harsh at the wrong time or without any real chance of making a beneficial difference. There are times when stern or hard words can bring someone around. There are other times when they cannot, when such speech is simply harsh with no redeeming qualities. Such speech should be avoided.

Idle chatter can simply be pointless discourse, as the Buddha outlines in the Brahmajāla Sutta:

… talk about kings, thieves, and ministers of state; talk about armies, dangers and wars; talk about food, drink, garments, and lodgings; talk about garlands and scents; talk about relatives, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, and countries; talk about women and talk about heroes; street talk and talk by the well; talk about those departed in days gone by; rambling chit-chat; speculations about the world and about the sea; talk about gain and loss … (Dīgha Nikāya 1).

The more important cases involve something more akin to gossip: chatter about other people with no beneficial end in mind. We should again recall that this advice is intended mostly for people within a monastic context, for whom study and practice of the dhamma is meant to be continuous. For a monastic, spending time chatting idly is simply a waste of effort that should be put to a better end, rather as chatting by the water cooler might anger one’s boss. But then if wasting time benefits nobody, why engage in it? Here in a way we come back to right intention.

Chatter or gossip that is divisive should be avoided, but it’s important not to lose the subtleties: we all know of ways that gossip can provide information, and that simple human contact can be of importance for its own sake. It’s not for nothing that the Buddha said good friendship constituted “the entire holy life”. (SN 45.2). The Buddha doesn’t claim all chatter is bad, far from it. But it has to be seen in the larger context of intending towards non-ill will, harmlessness, and wisdom. If gossip is intended to be helpful that is one thing. If it is intended to harm, or if it is promoted by greed, anger, or delusion, that is another.

Right Action

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the elements of the path: it tells us to avoid killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. All of these are motivated by egoism, ill will, or the wish to cause harm. As such they promote dukkha in ourselves and others, bringing us farther away from the goal.

To engage in these practices causes regret, a form of restlessness and remorse that makes calm meditation impossible. This is because they are not motivated by peaceful or calm states of mind; they promote agitation and worry, both in ourselves and in those we effect. Most particularly they promote retaliation and revenge, so any who indulge in such practices have to keep vigilant so as not to be caught and punished. But even aside from worries over punishment (ottappa), there is also the regret we have from our natural conscience (hiri), knowing that we have killed, stolen, or misbehaved sexually.

Of course, pain and sadness will likely be worse among those who have had to endure the abuse.

It is worth noting that in the Brahmajāla along with recommending against idle chatter, the Buddha also inveighs against indulging oneself in dancing, music, singing, sports, games, military reviews, and other pastimes in the context of the Path. While this advice is too strict for a lay audience, there is much to be learned from it. While we may enjoy frivolous entertainment, we should remain mindful, aware that for example games are for fun, not to promote egoism or anger. We should also be aware that entertainment is itself impermanent and unsatisfactory. “TGIF” only lasts twenty four hours.

Right Livelihood

Livelihood is actually more complex than it might seem. At first glance, this element of the Path appears to be directed at laypeople: after all, monastics are almost defined as those who have foregone a livelihood to remain mendicants. But in fact in the Brahmajāla the Buddha gives a long list of practices of livelihood in which bhikkhus should not engage, which give an interesting picture of ancient Indian practices such as:

[P]rophesying long life, prosperity etc., or the reverse, from the marks on a person’s limbs, hands, feet etc; divining by means of omens and signs; making auguries on the basis of thunderbolts and celestial portents; interpreting ominous dreams; telling fortunes from marks on the body; making auguries from the marks on cloth gnawed by mice; offering fire oblations; offering oblations from a ladle; offering oblations of husks, rice powder, rice grains, ghee, and oil to the gods; offering oblations from the mouth; offering blood-sacrifices to the gods; making predictions based on the fingertips; determining whether the site for a proposed house or garden is propitious or not; making predictions for officers of state; the knowledge of charms to lay demons in a cemetery; the knowledge of charms to cure one possessed by ghosts; the knowledge of charms to be pronounced by one living in an earthen house; the snake craft (for curing snake bites and charming snakes); the poison craft (for neutralizing or making poison); the scorpion craft and rat craft (for curing scorpion stings and rat bites, respectively); the bird craft and crow craft (for understanding the cries of birds and crows); foretelling the number of years that a man has to live; the knowledge of charms to give protection from arrows; reciting charms to understand the language of animals …

[I]nterpreting the significance of the color, shape, and other features of the following items to determine whether they portend fortune or misfortune for their owners: gems, garments, staffs, swords, spears, arrows, bows, other weapons, women, men, boys, girls, slaves, slave-women, elephants, horses, buffaloes, bulls, cows, goats, rams, fowl, quails, lizards, rabbits, tortoises, and other animals …

[M]aking predictions to the effect that: the king will march forth; the king will not march forth; our king will attack and the enemy king will retreat; the enemy king will attack and our king will retreat; our king will triumph and the enemy king will be defeated; the enemy king will triumph and our king will be defeated; thus there will be victory for one and defeat for the other …

[P]redicting: there will be an eclipse of the moon, an eclipse of the sun, an eclipse of a constellation; the sun and the moon will go on their proper courses; there will be an aberration of the sun and moon; the constellations will go on their proper courses; there will be an aberration of a constellation; there will be a fall of meteors; there will be a skyblaze; there will be an earthquake; there will be an earth-roar; there will be a rising and setting, a darkening and brightening, of the moon, sun, and constellations; such will be the result of the moon’s eclipse, such the result of the sun’s eclipse, (and so on down to) such will be the result of the rising and setting, darkening and brightening of the moon, sun, and constellations …

[P]redicting: there will be abundant rain; there will be a drought; there will be a good harvest; there will be a famine; there will be security; there will be danger; there will be sickness; there will be health; or they earn their living by accounting, computation, calculation, the composing of poetry, and speculations about the world …

[A]rranging auspicious dates for marriages, both those in which the bride is brought in (from another family) and those in which she is sent out (to another family); arranging auspicious dates for betrothals and divorces; arranging auspicious dates for the accumulation or expenditure of money; reciting charms to make people lucky or unlucky; rejuvenating the fetuses of abortive women; reciting spells to bind a man’s tongue, to paralyze his jaws, to make him lose control over his hands, to make him lose control over his jaw, or to bring on deafness; obtaining oracular answers to questions by means of a mirror, a girl, or a god; worshipping the sun; worshipping Mahābrahmā; bringing forth flames from the mouth; invoking the goddess of luck …

[P]romising gifts to deities in return for favors; fulfilling such promises; demonology; reciting spells after entering an earthen house; inducing virility and impotence; preparing and consecrating sites for a house; giving ceremonial mouthwashes and ceremonial bathing; offering sacrificial fires; administering emetics, purgatives, expectorants and phlegmagogues; administering medicine through the ear and through the nose; administering ointments and counter-ointments; practising fine surgery on the eyes and ears; practising general surgery on the body; practising as a children’s doctor; the application of medicinal roots; the binding on of medicinal herbs …

Elsewhere Sāriputta lists geomancy, astrology, palmistry, and errand running as wrong livelihood for monks. (SN 28.10). Rival ascetics would almost certainly have practiced such base swindles back in the Buddha’s day, and likely his own monastics were not immune to the charms of worldly gain in a similar fashion. Indeed, one finds such practices very closely associated with religious Buddhism up to the present day.

While according to the pāṭimokkha rules monastics are not to handle money, that clearly isn’t the point with this list. It would have been much simpler and shorter for the Buddha simply to have repeated that monastics aren’t to make any kind of living at all. No, what appears the case is that the Buddha saw something particularly questionable in traditional kinds of practiced magic. It would be most alluring to see this as an outshoot from the Buddha’s general empiricist bent: to believe that he saw these kinds of magic as swindles and nothing more.

This kind of reading may remind us of the opening to the Kevaddha Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 11), where the Buddha inveighs against using miracles to convince. It may also remind us of the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 12) where the Buddha argues that he has “superhuman states” by revealing incisive abilities at reasoning and inquiry. Similarly I have argued that the Buddha’s claim to possess “superhuman states” (uttari manussa dhammā) amounted to little more than his being awakened to the truth of impermanence, dukkha, and non-self, and his having uncommon abilities at absorptive concentration.

But this is not to say that the Buddha was a naturalist by any contemporary standard. He did believe he had insight into kammic destiny and his own and others’ past lives, among other things. As a result I don’t think we can claim the Buddha was opposed to street magic, palmistry, and oblations simply because they were swindles, although he might have thought some of them were. Rather he opposed them because they were aimed at worldly ends of gaining fame, renown, health, beauty, power, and wealth, rather than the world transcending end of nibbāna. But all of them have an aura of the unworldly, as it were. So one risks taking them for something more than they really are. Perhaps this is why the Buddha considered them “debased arts”.

We are more typically familiar with the advice to laypeople. Namely, that a layperson should not engage in “Trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, and trading in poisons. (Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.177). These follow pretty closely from Right Action in that trading in them is trading in life, and insofar as we practice non-killing we should not trade in life or that which takes life. The argument is suggestive but not entirely clear. That is the case for all but intoxicants.

Intoxicants are related to confusion and ignorance, methods of clouding the mind. Clouding the mind is problematic, but when we think about it, surely there are other methods of doing so than taking intoxicants. Plato famously railed against the Sophists and their practice of rhetoric, by which they used attractive words to convince people of falsehoods.

Similarly, while trading in weapons, poisons, and meat are related to killing, what about the livelihood of being a soldier? I have written in the past about the Buddha’s apparent decision not to allow ordination of soldiers on political grounds.

In fact, the Buddha does claim that actors — at least certain actors — and mercenary warriors are bound to bad rebirths. Actors are bound when they are “intoxicated and negligent, having made others intoxicated and negligent” by inciting desire, hatred, and delusion in their audiences. (SN 42.2). Warriors are bound because they have minds misdirected by thoughts of killing. (SN 42.3).

It would be easy to dismiss such claims, particularly regarding actors and intoxicants. I drink alcohol and enjoy watching dramas from time to time myself. But I think to leave them aside would be to miss a critical part of the Buddha’s teaching: there is a danger in drink just as there is a danger in fantasy. Both cloud our perception of the real world, and as such make it more difficult to discern what is to our own true benefit.

Right Effort

This is an element of the Path that I discussed earlier in “The Four Strivings”, which are the four aspects of right effort. We strive not to have unskillful mental states arise in us, we strive to cut off arisen unskillful mental states, we strive to produce skillful mental states, and we strive to continue skillful mental states that have arisen in us.

To take the last examples from the previous section, the Buddha says that actors entertain their audience by exciting them to desire, to hatred, and to delusion. In that case, they are striving to produce unskillful mental states in us, states that are opposed to any right effort we might make. Similarly the warrior “is one who strives and exerts himself in battle” with thoughts of killing and destroying. These are also unskillful mental states that we should strive to cut off when they arise, with practice of kindness (mettā) or the other Brahmavihāras.

Right effort is a times looked on askance in the contemporary West, perhaps because people are often drawn to Buddhism by a distaste for the perceived judgmentalism of theistic religion. To put it plainly, people are sick of being told what to do, particularly by all-too-often hypocritical reactionaries. People look to Buddhism to provide a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, beyond judgmentalism in its openness to all of reality. In some understandings of Buddhism this goes all the way to an assertion of the non-duality of all things including ethical claims. So it is sometimes implied that the only real effort is no-effort.

This is however not at all the picture we find in the Nikāyas. Right effort, based on right view and right intention, is key to progress along the path. It is true that effort will begin as an ego-driven enterprise, and that eventually one will have to see through that ego. It is also true that effort can become overwrought, and needs to be properly tuned. But this is not the same as saying that one will have to abandon effort. While there is the theoretical limit at nibbāna, for those of us who work along the Path, effort must be continuous, or at least as continuous as we can manage.

This may mean at times avoiding situations that we believe will promote greed or hatred. “Avoidance” is itself an unskillful mental state; best would be to be able to live within any situation with equanimity. But “guarding the sense doors” is a skill recommended by the Buddha. Skill is involved in knowing where we are, and in knowing our limits.

Right Mindfulness

To know ourselves, to know our limits, is right mindfulness. Perhaps no other element of the path is so often discussed in the contemporary West as mindfulness: the so-called “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” of the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas.

People often talk of the Buddha as a kind of empiricist, interested in sense experience alone as the source of knowledge. If the rest of the path is cognitive, practical, and ethical, in this element of the Path lies its empiricism. Here is where we are to become aware of the elements of experience, and in particular of the ways they manifest impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self.

One is to sit in meditation aware of the arising and passing of phenomena of all kinds: thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, volitions, and so on. This makes us viscerally aware of impermanence and its ubiquity.

One is to become aware of how even apparently long-lasting sensations such as the feel of pressure from sitting, or pain in the back, drift and change moment to moment. One is to contemplate the death and decay of the body, both as regards the bodies of others and as regards one’s own body, for nothing is permanent.

Death and decay are marks of impermanence, they are also marks of unsatisfactoriness. One is to become aware of the unsatisfactory nature of the body also by contemplating its (one might say) ‘un-beautiful’ parts, such as its internal organs, fluids, and so on. This is intended to be an objective, almost clinical resumé of the body, which should moderate our attachment to it as a thing of pride. Just like all things, our body and the bodies of others are not permanent sources of satisfaction. Similarly one is to become aware of the state of one’s mind, when it is in states of greed, hatred, delusion; when it is contracted around some concern, and when it is expanded and uplifted.

These mental states are marks of unsatisfactoriness, they are also marks of non-self. One is to become aware of the different aspects of the self, the five aggregates (khandas) of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness, see them arising and passing away. One is to see the body as composed of parts, and each of the aggregates as manifesting differently from moment to moment. Outside of these temporary manifestations there is nothing, no permanent or unchanging self.

In the last foundation, mindfulness of dhammas, one goes beyond what one might call bare empirical investigation towards orienting one’s experience around Buddhist theory: it is in this section that one views experience in terms of the aggregates, the sense bases (āyatanas), the factors of awakening (sambojjhangas), and the Four Noble Truths themselves. That is, one is to see experience as manifesting the dhamma.

Pursuit of Right Mindfulness is a microcosm of the entire Path. While one could perhaps make this claim of any Path element (they interweave), nevertheless in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10.46) the Buddha claims that the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness alone will lead to nibbāna or its nearest cousin (“non-returning”).

Right Concentration

The last element in the Eightfold Path is right concentration. This should strike us as odd, since the path does at least have the faint sense of a linear progression, beginning with right view and intention, then to ethical behavior, and finally to meditative insight. In that case why finish with concentration rather than mindfulness? Nowadays in the shadow of the secular mindfulness movement we are prone to leave the last element of the path out almost entirely: we have “right concentration” simply by calming ourselves enough to do mindfulness meditation. But surely in that case right mindfulness should come last.

In the Nikāyas right concentration is defined in terms of achievement of the jhānas, states of deep concentration or meditative absorption. Just before attaining enlightenment, the Buddha practiced intensive jhānic meditation with two different teachers. It was his awareness that jhāna alone did not lead to nibbāna that led him to pursue his own path. Nevertheless Richard Gombrich (Gombrich 1997: 96-134) has argued that the earlier strata of suttas tend to give more emphasis to jhāna than the latter. I would argue that passages in the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta (among the earliest) that appear to put forward an apophatic dhamma are in fact expressions of jhānic meditative attainments. This would imply that early in his career the Buddha’s dhamma was influenced by his jhānic meditation teachers, and that perhaps later he moved on from them to a more mindfulness-based approach.

It may therefore have been (as Gombrich (2009: 109) has argued as well) that the formulation of the Eightfold Path as culminating in Right Concentration occurred relatively early, and simply was never changed. That is, early in his career the Buddha saw nibbāna as something that was attained from a deep state of jhāna, perhaps a state deeper than the ones he had been taught. (Nirodha samāpatti). Then later on he may have begun to realize that jhāna itself was not really the point, that it was useful for reducing attachment to worldly pleasures but not so much for attaining the final step in the path.

It is even possible the Buddha learned this through dialogue with fellow monastics who were not as jhānically accomplished, but who had been able to gain nibbāna, or release through complete non-clinging, through mindful insight. We can only speculate.

That said, I think it is a mistake to consider concentration as only a quick preliminary to mindful meditation. It is not the point of practice of course. I am not an accomplished jhānic meditator, I am not even convinced I have ever attained jhāna. It depends on how one interprets them, and whether Leigh Brasington’s contemporary jhānic practices are adequate.

But I believe that deep states of concentration are both pleasant and useful in weaning us away from worldly attachments. The only drawback to them is the drawback of the entire Path: they take a lot of effort to achieve. One has to have a regular practice of over an hour a day meditating, probably well over an hour, to get oneself into jhāna. Even then one will almost certainly need guidance. I expect the Buddha spent many hours every day doing this, but nowadays we are often too pressed for time to implement this element of the Path.


Along with describing the Eightfold Path, I have tried to point out some of its uncomfortable aspects, since I do not believe that Buddhist practice is intended to be comfortable or easy if engaged upon fully. It depends upon the renunciation of frivolous pursuits, as well as pursuits that lead to emotional attachment.

The Path constitutes the heart of Buddhist practice. That is so whether one follows a traditional or a secular interpretation. The notion that one could pursue the Buddhist Path while remaining a layperson is largely a modern development. While there were a number of very accomplished lay practitioners in the Buddha’s day, it is clear from the suttas that attainment of nibbāna was difficult, especially so while living an ordinary life with concerns over family, career, money, and so on. I have argued that at the very least completion of the Path as a lay practitioner was unusual, and Gombrich (2006: 75-6) has argued it probably did not happen during the Buddha’s day.

Indeed, given the arduous and ascetic nature of the Path, there is a live question whether as laypeople with families and careers we really want to complete it. Doing so would involve our getting to a state of complete non-attachment from all things, including family, friends, and careers. Often nowadays this is spun as something that can be achieved essentially without change: one can be married and a hard-working careerist while being completely non-attached. I do not believe this is correct; it certainly is not in the spirit of the earliest teachings. While non-attachment does not imply psychological detachment, it does imply a kind of equanimity in the face of all things that does not fit well with ordinary family and career duties. That said, each of us can work to integrate the teachings as best we can, and as we find them most appropriate, within daily life. So long as they are properly understood, they are useful in whatever quantity one can manage.

Insofar as we identify secularism with a life of ordinary lay pursuits and attachments, they will become stumbling blocks to practice. The ordinary lay life, the life of saṃsāra, is a life of delusion. However insofar as we identify secularism with an ethical stance that avoids supernatural claims, the path outlined above is perfectly consistent with it. While the Buddha made any number of supernatural claims, the practice of the Path does not depend upon their truth.

Whether and how it might be possible to pursue a secular path without lay attachments, or perhaps by living an “extraordinary” lay life, is something that still remains to be understood. It is not something that will be understood simply by reference to the earliest texts, although those texts will prove useful guides.


Previous blog posts on the Noble Truths:

The First Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth

The Third Noble Truth


Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.), Various Nikāyas (Wisdom).

Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.), “Brahmajāla Sutta: The All-embracing Net of Views” (DN 1). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

Henry Chadwick (trans.), Saint Augustine: Confessions (Oxford, 1991).

Paul Fuller, The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism (RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997).

Richard Gombrich, Theravāda Buddhism (Routledge, 2006).

Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought (Equinox, 2009).

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on May 13, 2015 at 7:38 am

    If we cling to the monastic chauvinism we see in many (but not all) of the Pali texts, there is little point in pursuing a lay dharma practice, secular or otherwise. As these texts tell us, our choice is between entering the homeless state or feeding the monks and hoping for a better shot in our next life. Fortunately, wisdom is not in the sheaves of old texts, but in our own bodies, minds and hearts, right where Gotama advised us to look for it. Each of us can access that wisdom wherever we are — at the family dinner table, in the office cube, at the supermarket, or on a crosstown bus. If we think we have to wait until we give up sex and alcohol or attain the Fourth Jhana, we are missing out on our chance to achieve freedom right in this moment — the only moment it will ever be available to us. We each have the capacity to experience a great abundance of joy and peace without meditating for hours daily or moving to the forest. Judging our practice by unapproachable standards is simply another way for the ego to proliferate its delusions. When you hear yourself doing that, one skillful response could be, “I see you, Mara.”

    • mufi on May 16, 2015 at 10:00 am

      Mark, well said.

      However, when we frame our practice as a version of “Buddhism” or “the Dhamma”, the problem you describe is virtually unavoidable, given the historical & sociological weight of that language and how the human mind works by association and precedence.

      Doug, as I understand him (here specifically and more generally in his SBA article series), is simply working within that same framework (religious/monastic warts & all), trying to understand it and assess what, if anything, it has to offer a 21st-Century secular thinker.

      Ultimately, I think it’s best if we abandon the old jargon and its English equivalents and rely on our own idioms to describe our condition and ways to alleviate suffering, but that’s a personal choice that no doubt entails other challenges.

      • Doug Smith on May 16, 2015 at 10:57 am

        “Doug, as I understand him (here specifically and more generally in his SBA article series), is simply working within that same framework (religious/monastic warts & all), trying to understand it and assess what, if anything, it has to offer a 21st-Century secular thinker.”

        Yup, that’s right. And I think it’s important to try to understand that framework as thoroughly as possible before deciding how to approach it. It’s also important to update our approach as our understanding deepens. In most cases the knowledgeable and experienced practitioners are traditional, and they have a great deal to teach.

        • mufi on May 16, 2015 at 12:42 pm

          Thanks for the confirmation, Doug.

          While I certainly agree that we have something to learn from traditionalist teachers, I share Mark’s concern about supporting and/or perpetuating what he calls “monastic chauvinism.” I’m not sure what the proper balance is here, but I personally have found modernist (as in “laicized”, if not “debuddhized”) sources to be more helpful in my own practice.

          By analogy, Massimo Pigliucci’s neo-Stoicism has much to recommend it, but it too is encumbered with a load of ancient baggage that, while of scholarly interest, could very easily distract from the practical goals that Massimo (admirably) has in mind, should his rebranding ever achieve popularity among the laity. And yet, even in original form, Stoicism is a relatively this-worldly philosophy, which requires less work to secularize/naturalize than Buddhism (as in the Buddha-Dhamma), whether we find its “spiritual exercises” to be as rewarding or not.

          I suppose there is something compelling about antiquity that draws us towards these old schools, even as we recognize how out-dated they are. Granting that human nature hasn’t changed much over the millennia, human cultures certainly have, and Buddhism and Stoicism are nothing else if not cultural artifacts, emerging out of particular contexts with limited means to survive and flourish elsewhere. Perhaps it’s best if we simply accept this flux and let go of the old icons, even as we observe common ground with their reported experiences and give credit wherever it’s due.

          • Doug Smith on May 16, 2015 at 2:01 pm

            I think there are many routes to take, but if I felt the “debuddhized” sources were most helpful to my understanding and practice I would not be involved in “Secular Buddhism” per se.

            I find Massimo’s interest in Stoicism to be quite to my liking as well. Though I do feel Buddhist dhamma is deeper, Stoicism has a lot to offer.

            As I say: many routes, and no reason why one person’s approach will be to everyone’s liking.

          • mufi on May 18, 2015 at 7:29 am

            Doug, please note that I also said that I find “laicized” sources helpful, which includes your articles and others on offer here on the SBA site and elsewhere. I refer to “debuddhized” sources more or less as a stand-in for secular mindfulness sources, like the ones my MBSR instructors distributed each week. Far be it from me to present a false dilemma between these two kinds of sources, which is why I group them together as “modernist”, as distinct from “traditionalist.”

            Of course, each approach has its pros and cons, but even within the domain of Secular Buddhism, Winton Higgins has observed:

            “…the incompatibility of the renunciatory conception of the good life on the one hand, and the native Western eudaimonic one of developing our manifold human capacities (“full human flourishing” in [Charles] Taylor’s phrase) on the other…These two renderings of a dharmic commitment—the renunciatory and the eudaimonic—may share common elements, but as options to live by, they diverge markedly and call on today’s Western dharma practitioners to choose between them if their spiritual lives are not to fall into incoherence.”


          • Doug Smith on May 18, 2015 at 7:41 am

            Yes, thanks I understand the distinction you are trying to make. I just wanted to highlight a distinction I see between what might be called “laicized”/”secularized” and “debuddhized”. They all have their place of course; as I say I also find Stoicism interesting which has nothing to do with Buddhism per se. (In addition to many other philosophical approaches, of course).

            As for the Higgins quote, I was trying to point out that very concern above, e.g. Right Intention: “there is a live question as to whether one can rid oneself of attachment while pursuing sexual or sentimental goals.” That said, I think it is too quick to assert that Buddhist renunciation is incompatible with “full human flourishing”. It may be incompatible with certain Western conceptions thereof, but I believe a life of complete non-attachment may indeed be a life of “full human flourishing”. If so however it might be quite different though than the life we would ordinarily consider “flourishing”. (E.g., no interest in ordinary sentimental attachments, etc.)

            This is one of the questions I think we as secular practitioners have to come to grips with. As I also say above, we may indeed decide that the final, nibbānic goal is not appropriate, or not one we can stomach. Perhaps that is because we are unwilling to give up all our dukkha-causing attachments, perhaps that is because in the final analysis we decide that Buddhism isn’t the right path for us as opposed say to some modern Western path such as that of Stoicism or Aristotelianism, etc.

  2. mufi on May 18, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Doug: Note that, even in my short quote above, Higgins refers to “the renunciatory conception of the good life.” [emphasis mine] I take that to mean that monastic renunciation, while perhaps sharing “common elements” with “the native Western eudaimonic one of developing our manifold human capacities”, is nonetheless a kind of model for human flourishing…but not one that many of us Westerners would find familiar (except perhaps in Judeo-Christian clerical analogs), and not one that many of us are likely to integrate into our lives, owing to the “incompatibility” of these models.

    He could be mistaken, of course, but I feel that I’ve experienced some of that incompatibility in my own practice, which I’m tempted to characterize as yet another form of “dukkha.”

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.